All cameras [still and motion] share three critical attributes that combined allow us shoot and record visual data. They are the lens, the sensor and the data recorder. Even from the earliest times of photography this has been true, though in the old days of film, a chemical process was used to so that the ‘sensor’ was light sensitive film, and the ‘data recorder’ was a dip into chemicals that revealed the images captured on the film.
Let’s consider the role each of these three elements in creating an image, or a motion picture. The idea of revealing a scene through a piece of glass is ancient, with the roots of camera obscura going back at least a thousand years. There was no recording of images until 1816 when by a French inventor Joseph Niepce. He discovered a crude way to record an image using paper with a silver oxide coating. The modern camera was born!
Some 70 years later,The very first patented film camera was designed in England by Frenchman Louis Le Prince in 1888. Thomas Edison invented the first practical motion picture camera in 1889 ‘to do for the eyes what his phonograph did for the ears’. It featured a focusable lens and celluloid film that moved across the lens using sprockets. This film was then processed using chemicals, the standard for nearly 100 years until the video camera was developed.
Over that time one element did change dramatically – the lens. Focusing on ‘the glass’ was to be expected, as lenses are such a huge part of the image capturing process. Fixed or prime lens were first, with a focal length that would create a very wide or narrow focus to be presented to the film. Then came zoom lenses, which added some bit of distortion, but allowed for great flexibility through the ability to change focal length on the fly.
Overall, that meant that by the 1930s, we had a stable and sophisticated methodology for motion picture creation. Technicolor was the magical processing that generated very saturated, gorgeous film.
Such film processing was standard until video cameras emerged in the 1970s. Early imaging was done with light sensitive tubes, just as most all early electronics, like radios and tvs, were tube driven. With the advent of semi-conductors – transistors – the game changed again.
Light sensitive diodes replaced the ungainly ‘vidicon’ and other analog tubes to become the sensor of choice while other transistors were used to process that signal and assist getting the data onto magnetic tape. Magnetic tape was the standard recording format from the late 1970s (VHS) until the early part of this century when the process of capturing and storing imagery became digital.
Which is basically where we find ourselves today. Everyone with a smart phone is a camera operator. Most everyone can use imovie, moviemaker or similar platforms to edit video. Yet through all these iterations, we still find the same makeup to the camera – a lens, an image capturing sensor, and a storage mechanism. What a long strange trip it’s been…